2015 International Chef Of The Year: Enrique Olvera

Should you find yourself in Mexico City and decide to ask a handful of people what the best restaurant in town is, the vast majority will tell you Pujol. This is no easy feat, as Mexico City is undoubtedly one of the world's great culinary destinations, but the accolades speak for themselves: It's currently ranked at number 16 on S. Pellegrino's annual ranking of the world's best restaurants, and is invariably ranked among the top 10 restaurants in all of Latin America on every major list (we named it Mexico's Best Restaurant). However, our panel of previous years' honorees (including Massimo Bottura, José Andrés, Grant Achatz, and Albert Adrià) didn't vote for its chef, Enrique Olvera, to be named our 2015 International Chef of the Year based on plaudits alone. It's because he's showcasing the indigenous ingredients of Mexico in unique and innovative ways that can't be overstated, and — oh, yeah — his New York restaurant, Cosme, has taken the city by storm, earning three stars from the New York Times.

2015 American Chef of the Year: David Chang

It was at Cosme that I sat down with Olvera on a recent rainy afternoon for an extended conversation about his history, his motivations, his mission, and what the future holds in store. He's soft-spoken, thoughtful, and humble, and it's clear that he isn't out for personal glory; he just wants to cook good food and make people happy, and is incredibly passionate about Mexican cuisine.

Olvera was born in Mexico City in 1976, and after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America he spent time on the line at Chicago's acclaimed Everest. With his extensive classical training and fine-dining experience, he moved back to his hometown in 2000 to open Pujol. Reimaging the traditional cuisines of Mexico and presenting them in a modern fine-dining setting put his restaurant at the upper echelon of the Mexico City culinary scene almost instantly. If you're lucky enough to snag a table there, you might be served dishes that include smoked baby corn dusted with chicatana ants, a pool of two-year-old mole encircling a second pool of new mole, sea urchin sopes, fresh and dehydrated nopales with green pea shoots, and barbacoa tacos made with 24-hour slow-roasted sheep.

At Cosme, which opened in 2014, Olvera is making 2,500 fresh tortillas daily with heirloom single-source Mexican corn and serving dishes including beef tongue with lettuces, chicatana ant-coffee oil, and nopal; mushroom and squash barbacoa with chilpachole and hoja santa; crispy octopus with hazelnut mole, pickled potatoes, and watercress; and duck carnitas to share, which takes three full days to prepare and has emerged as the must-order. Needless to say, Cosme is also a certified smash.

Olvera isn't just turning out his interpretation of Mexican cuisine; he fully embodies it. As Ferran Adrià put it, "There was Mexican food before Enrique Olvera, and Mexican food after Enrique Olvera." Dine at either of his restaurants and you'll leave with a completely transformed impression of what Mexican food is, and can be. And behind it all is a chef who's just doing what comes natural, who isn't out for fame or fortune. When I addressed him as "chef" before our interview (which you can read in full below), his response spoke volumes: "Don't call me 'chef,'" he said. "Just call me Enrique."

The Daily Meal: First of all, congratulations on being named Chef of the Year!
Enrique Olvera:
Thank you! I guess that means we must be doing something right.

Going back to your childhood, what initially sparked your interest in cooking?
I always liked making people happy. That's why I started cooking. I always liked having friends over and cooking for them. Also, I think Mexican culture is about hospitality. It's something that we are born with, I guess. Our parents always tell us that whenever you have guests over you should do your best to make them feel welcome. And I think the restaurant business is all about that. It's not about being cocky or starting a competition; it's a way of making people happy.

What was the first dish that you ever cooked?
I started baking because my grandparents had a bakeshop, so I remember baking cakes with my mom for birthdays. I always liked helping her in the kitchen, to the point where I think she started worrying that I was going to be a cook, and then I ended up being a cook! I find fascinating still to this day the possibility of working with your mind and your hands. I think that's a very human thing. I really enjoy the transformation of ingredients; I find it almost magical how you can mix eggs and flour and it becomes a cake, which kind of sounds silly, but it is so special.

What do you think it is about your cooking and style of cuisine that sets it apart from what other chefs and restaurants are doing?
I think cooking has become very personal. When I started cooking school, you had to know a lot of recipes and how to execute them. Now, a good cook is someone who can personalize cuisine and can read recipes and make it their own. I think that's what's as special as anybody else's cuisine. Just the fact that we've let go over the past few years, being able to cook freely and not trying to impress anyone has actually made us a stronger restaurant.

Cooking for someone sounds like it's a very personal experience for you.
It's a way of letting people know that you love them, right? I mean, when I come home and my wife has made chicken soup or something, it's not just chicken soup. It's the fact that they're taking care of you, and that they're procuring good ingredients, cooking with care, and then giving it to someone else. I know it sounds kind of poetic, and I'm not like that. To me a restaurant is about hospitality and having fun. That's what we like to do. At Cosme that's what we strive for. We're always making sure that this place is welcoming and warm.

I've dined at Pujol and it was unlike any other dining experience I've ever had. Can you walk me through what your motivation behind that restaurant was, and is, with its muted décor and very high staff-to-seat ratio?
Pujol is a home, so we approach it as if people are coming over to your house. It's one menu; if somebody came to my house I'd go to the market in the morning, buy the best possible ingredients I could find, and cook them in the best way I could. And that's why it's a tasting menu and not à la carte. The dining room is fairly small, the walls are black because I want to make people look good, and they say you always look good on a black background. Food looks good on a white background, so that's why the plates are white.

We play music that I like, and the menu is basically — we're trying to tell a story, so we don't think of Pujol as dishes, we think of it as menus. Those same dishes here in Cosme, for example, would be completely stupid. A pond of mole in an à la carte scenario makes no sense. But when you're doing it on a tasting menu it makes sense. We're trying to do one huge dish there, and that's how we approach our menu.

We like to focus on ingredients that are local, not necessarily Mexican but local — if broccoli is being planted locally, we'll use it — and then when I travel in Mexico, I always like to eat in the markets. And here I have a fine-dining restaurant, but I don't like eating in fine-dining restaurants. I like to eat in markets. So the menu at Pujol is based on market food, so it's tacos, tostadas, esquites, things you'd eat at the market, and I think that markets aren't perfect, they sometimes overcook the protein, they don't have the resources in manpower or quality of ingredients that we do at Pujol, so we combine the excellence of fine dining with the soul and the flavor of the market. Because I think some fine dining restaurants have no flavor. They're very precise, but they're boring. And street food is never boring.

Before opening Cosme, you did a lot of research. What did you learn before opening this restaurant that informed the final vision?
When I dined out, I realized that New York is on the forefront of dining. A lot of the time, people say that there's nothing happening, nothing exciting, no fine dining restaurants in New York, and I realized that this is because people are getting sick of fine dining. New Yorkers, I think especially, are in the forefront of that. They want a restaurant that they can come in a sweatshirt and have a dining experience. So we knew that we needed to do something quality because New Yorkers embrace that and they're willing to pay for it, but they also want to relax. They want to go out and have fun, they don't want to go out and be all stuffy. We learned a lot about the produce, too. We went to the markets and looked at the ingredients, and I tried to understand the flavor profile of successful restaurants and adapt it to a Mexican palate.

What were some surprises that you uncovered along the way, and after it opened?
To me, the most amazing thing was the hospitality of chefs. There's a bad reputation that New Yorkers hate foreign chefs, but with me it was exactly the opposite. I've found nothing but hospitality from chefs and from customers, and that was a surprise.

Food-wise, I think there's also a street scene that we have yet to explore. I head to the Bronx every time I'm in New York to try to understand what's going on there, and I'm sure there's a new cuisine being created right now.

Will that inform what you're doing at Cosme?
I'm always looking for inspiration, and there's so many people from so many cultures here, that there's a cuisine emerging, New York cuisine, and we have a lot of fun mixing cultures together.

So you see the restaurant evolving over time?
Yeah, we're always evolving. We're always correcting our own work. That's the beautiful thing about cooking, right? You're always able to correct your work. If you're an architect it's hard to correct your buildings, but if you're cooking there are always things that you're learning; you realize as any person would that you didn't know things as well as you thought you did a few months ago or a few years ago, and you always keep trying to improve. It's not about changing the menu just for the hell of changing the menu; you're actually trying to make better things.

Alice Waters has said that you're "on a mission to save Mexican culture." Is that a statement that you agree with?
I would say that I want to have the most beautiful restaurant that I can. In that process, I think there are consequences and we understand them, but that's not the mission. The mission is to have a restaurant that's fantastic, and then whatever comes after that is great. And I think that when you cook properly it creates community and a sense of pride, but that's a consequence, not a goal.

How does it feel what someone says something like that about you? Is it a challenge, intimidating, a compliment?
Well when it comes from Alice Waters, it's a compliment; anything she says is amazing. Coming from her, I feel humbled and also a responsibility. But I try not to think about that, because I think if you focus on the incorrect goal then you start making poor decisions. Obviously, the fact that people recognize your work and they recognize you is a beautiful thing; it feels great because when it comes from peers it makes it more special.

Are there any aspects of Mexican culture that you're hoping to introduce to new audiences, or that you would like to save?[pullquote:left]
I've always thought that Mexican food is extremely sophisticated. And we're happy that people are recognizing that now. A taco isn't necessarily cheap and ugly; it can be extremely sophisticated, and the fact that people are now talking about corn like you'd talk about coffee: where it comes from, what kind of corn. You don't talk about "wine," you talk about white or red. Same with corn; you don't talk about "corn," you talk about the many varieties. And I think people are starting to pay attention to that. It's not the mission, but when you have something special, you want to share it. And I think we have something very special in Mexican cuisine, and we're going to share it.

What are some other aspects of Mexican cuisine that you think are underappreciated?
It's a big country, same as the U.S., and it has many regional cuisines. I don't declare myself an expert either. I have a lot to learn, and I always say, "Next year, I'm going to take a year off and travel through Mexico and learn more," and never have the time to do it, but I'm sure that there's a lot we can learn from Mexican culture. There's a lady recently who's making a salsa with charred vanilla beans in Veracruz, and it's so amazing! This has happened for hundreds of years, and I didn't know about it, so I think there's still a lot of surprises from Mexico, and a lot to explore and taste. I think one of the most beautiful experiences I had in my life was the first time I had chicatana ants. It's a new flavor. Eating something I've never eaten before makes me extremely happy. I think that's why Mexican food is so cool, because there are always surprises.

I know you're a big proponent of eating insects.
Because they're tasty, not because it's cool! They actually taste good, they're nice. It should be obvious, but they taste like the soil. They're a good representation of terroir. That's why I like them.

What do you say to people who rule eating insects out, and would never try them?
People who don't have an open mind are missing a great part of life. A culture that's open minded will evolve, and people who are closed-minded only look at the past as the best place cannot go too far.

What's the next year hold in store for you?
We're just trying to have fun. We're always in the dilemma of doing new projects or not. I feel extremely lucky. Cosme has been the best dream I've ever had. This is just amazing, and I'm super grateful and I want to enjoy it, but I don't want to overindulge in success. I want to keep things as they are. I'm in a beautiful period of my life, and I'm going to enjoy it. Obviously we need to create more opportunities for our staff, but we also want to stay very family-oriented.

Would you like to open more restaurants in New York, or are there other parts of the country you're looking at?
Definitely New York. We're not even thinking about anywhere else. I love it here. I think there are great possibilities to do things here. I want to stay in New York; I want to come more often. I want to be a part of the city, it energizes me, I love the scene, I love the energy of the city. I don't need anything else but Mexico City and New York. And then I can have a life too. As it is I travel a lot. I don't want to become one of those chefs who live in an airplane.

A lot of chefs are opening in Las Vegas and Miami Beach these days.
We've gotten a lot of proposals, but we're staying in New York.

Would you be interested in opening something smaller and more casual?
Yeah, if we do something else it would definitely go in that direction. I think a lot of restaurants are made to have a very strong and powerful setting and sometimes you want something that's lighter. I hate empty restaurants. When we open a restaurant we always make sure that people want to go there. And people want to go to casual restaurants. So it would be something like that.

What would it specialize in?
I love tortillas, so definitely tortillas. But maybe not tacos. If you want to open a proper taqueria, it has to be something almost like a sushi bar, where the sushi is delivered by the cook. Tacos get soggy quickly. If you have waiters that need to walk 60 feet, the tortilla's not going to get there on time. I've always wanted to do something around tortillas, only. Because we have tortillas here, and we have tortillas at Pujol. In Pujol, actually, when we started doing tacos a few years ago, we got overexcited and at some point most of the menu was tacos, until a customer came in and said, "Now you have a taqueria? This is not a restaurant, this is a taqueria!" I said, "Okay, I'll stop." [laughs]

Is there anything that you personally don't like to eat or cook?
I don't like the smell of boiled eggs. It stinks like a fart, so I don't like that. But if they're properly cooked I like them, but I think my mother gave me too much of them as a kid. In general, I like everything.

What do you like to cook for yourself, at home?
I love tortillas. It gives me so much peace, making tortillas. I'll usually take home some masa from Pujol, and make myself a few tortillas, put some avocado in there, a little salsa, and just eat avocado tacos, which are an amazing thing. I like making tortillas with my kids, too, and when they grab my face their hands smell like masa, and that's my definition of happiness.

What's your favorite taco filling, if you can only have one?
I'm in love with quesadillas. If you have a tortilla and good quesillo and a little sprig of epazote, it's a poem. So simple and perfect.

What do you want your legacy to be?
I just want people that know me to have a good time. I don't think about legacy. I think that's something that happens naturally. I don't think you should idolize people you don't know. To me it's more important what people who know me think about me than what people who don't know me think about my legacy.

2011 American Chef of the Year: Grant Achatz
2011 International Chef of the Year: René Redzepi
2012 American Chef of the Year: José Andrés
2012 International Chef of the Year: Massimo Bottura
2013 American Chef of the Year: Dan Barber
2013 International Chef of the Year: Albert Adrià
2014 American Chef of the Year: Sean Brock
2014 International Chef of the Year: Andoni Luis Aduriz